By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Twenty minutes was all it took to get the ball rolling on one of the most important land grabs in recent downtown Minneapolis history. At 3:30 p.m. on January 22, four lawyers representing the owners of the land for the Twins ballpark site and another representing Hennepin County convened in Judge Stephen Aldrich's 13th-floor chambers in the Hennepin County Government Center to discuss the county's wish to obtain the land where a new Twins stadium is supposed to be built by opening day 2010.
Going in, the parties (including another attorney representing a mortgage company) had essentially agreed that eminent domain proceedings were inevitable. In fact, lawyers representing the county and the landowners had discussed an agreement over the prior weekend: namely, that condemnation proceedings would not be blocked by the landowners, and the land was there for the taking. According to the standards of eminent domain law, the question was whether a new stadium for the team served a "public purpose," and the landowners were not going to challenge that.
Despite the seeming congeniality of the hearing, there are several sticky issues in play. The landowners and Hennepin County are far apart on the actual value of the 8.8 acres of land, and there's no reason to believe the dispute will be resolved soon. County tax records from 2006 assess the two parcels at a combined $9.8 million, a number that has fluctuated over the last five years. The county has a cap on how much it can actually spend on land acquisition, and right now is reportedly willing to spend $13.35 million for the site—a number that the owners believe is low.
Early on, Judge Aldrich wondered how the two sides had arrived at the impasse. "Oh dear," he remarked at one point. "Am I to understand that none of the parties agreed to the price before getting legislative approval [for a ballpark on the site]? There was no price required?" The attorneys all confirmed that the judge was correct.
Though the parties are still in negotiations, Aldrich subsequently asked both sides to submit names for a three-person panel to determine the value of the land. (By press time, the makeup of the panel, to be approved by Judge Aldrich, had not been decided.) Assembling a panel and determining a value could take as long as six months, and even then, there could be a trial if either side is unsatisfied.
By 3:50 p.m., Judge Aldrich had agreed to let condemnation begin and left the chambers. Dan Rosen, an attorney for the landowners, indicated an uphill battle. Rosen remarked immediately after the hearing, "Either side could reject the commission's award."
In the words of Marc Simpson, an attorney representing Hennepin County, "We've really just started here."
Back in May 2006, the Twins held a pregame ceremony in which Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the ballpark bill that had just been passed by the Legislature. Practically every local politician who was anybody took the field to mingle with players ahead of time, slapping backs and shaking hands. It was a particularly joyous occasion for the three Hennepin County board members who promoted the stadium plan most avidly—Mike Opat, Peter McLaughlin, and Mark Stenglein. This particular deal, hashed out by Hennepin County and the Twins, would put the stadium on the so-called Rapid Park site just north of the Target Center, a plan that had been percolating for some two years.
But there was an uneasy feeling underneath all the ceremony before the game. Besides that, the public hearings at the county level—which began a year earlier—seemed to raise more questions that lingered at the ceremony. Who would be in charge of the ballpark? Who would pay for it? Would it have a roof? Nobody seriously considered such issues during the pregame signing.
Now, nearly a year after the Hennepin County deal took shape, questions about stadium design and construction, infrastructure costs, and naming rights hang in the balance, as well as a host of other issues. There are at least eight private and public parties involved in every imaginable aspect of the stadium, but rarely are any of them on the same page—or in some cases even communicating with each other. Some of the issues tied up with the stadium remain in early planning stages, and by all accounts it will take a heroic effort to complete the park within three years.
While many involved in the project express optimism, others aren't so sure. Mary DeLaittre, a local architect who was involved in a preliminary design task force that issued a report in October about how the stadium should be built to fit into the North Loop neighborhood, says that many design and construction recommendations are being ignored by key players such as the county, the city of Minneapolis, the Ballpark Authority, MnDot, and the Met Council.
"The report was the first step in creating a vision for the area and articulating the necessary next steps," DeLaittre notes. "It was met with great support from the various stakeholders and the public, but unfortunately the disparate planning efforts still do not appear to reflect the vision and principles laid out in the report." She adds: "I believe the most critical next step is finalizing the land purchase."